Your Body Matters: The Spirituality of Physicality

I have been a member of a gym for some twelve years. It has 18 outlets/clubs all over our little island. I have been to nearly every one of these, according to my availability and convenience, to where I am and what is being offered (the group classes). I must say I am very impressed at the number going for their individual and/or group workouts. The classes are almost always full and there were a couple of times when I couldn’t even secure a locker or had to wait in line for the washroom.

Our culture today places an incredible emphasis on health, diet, and fitness. And if you grew up with a religious background, you are probably familiar with the biblical principle that your body is the temple of God and ought to be treated with care (I will say more about this below). Yet most people today are still overweight and out of shape.

We have heard about the dangers of tobacco, drugs and alcohol. Clearly, they are detrimental. But the failure to keep physically fit is perhaps our most blatant and recurrent sin against our bodies. In our pulpits and Christian Ed classes, we are taught about sexuality, adultery and lying, stealing, coveting and lust. But many who teach and preach against these things are visibly overweight or obese.

I don’t say this to judge them – I struggle with the same thing; I often have to drag my feet to the gym. Many of us are concerned with health habits but sadly, live with constant sense of failure that we could be doing more about our weight. We fight against the self-defeating behaviours that make us gravitate towards the sweet, savoury and/or fast foods. The sobering truth is that none of us will be completely free of these struggles this side of heaven – but staying engaged in the battle will do tremendous things for our souls as well as for our physical health.

Why do we need to be physically fit and be in good health? You probably know the answers. But some refreshing reminders (and new insights?) might hopefully offer you a fresh perspective and renewed motivation for making some changes.

Many people address physical fitness for lesser reasons – to live longer (even though they may lack purpose and passion), to look younger (even though they are aging by the day), to look more attractive or appealing (the reason, I reckon, why many go to the gym), to enjoy physical health. These are some motivations the world clings to, and while they may have some merit, there is little of lasting value in them. 

The reason why you and I want to get in shape is not to impress anyone, not to make others feel inferior, not to demonstrate our personal discipline and self-control. The goal is in this pursuit is not sculpting thinner or more athletic-looking bodies but to cultivate stronger, well-nourished bodies that are primed to become, in the words of the apostle Paul, “instruments for special (noble) purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work” (II Tim 2:21).

Bodies are not ornaments but instruments, vessels set apart to serve the God who fashioned them. Paul was zealous to be made holy, useful to his master, and prepared to do any good work that he was willing, in his words, “to beat my body and make it my slave” (I Cor 9:27) towards that end.

We have a body that not only contains a soul but affects the soul as well. All the proper doctrine in the world can’t save us from eating away our sensitivity to God’s presence and power or throwing away years of potential ministry if we wreck our heart’s physical home. For most of our lives we have emphasized growing our souls, not always realizing that a lack of physical discipline can undercut and even erode spiritual growth. There is, indeed, the spiritual and emotional stakes behind the very physical battle of eating and exercise.

We are not souls who can neglect our physical beings. The apostle urges us to be holy in “both body and spirit” (I Cor 7:34). Holiness requires a totality of experience that includes our bodies. Further, he admonishes, “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body” (Rom 6:12). On the contrary, “Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness (Rom 6:19).

In II Cor 7:1, Paul teaches to “purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit” and in I Thess 4:4 and I Cor 6:20, “to control your own body in a way that is holy and honourable” and “honour God with your bodies.” We cannot be faithful believers if we ignore our bodies. Caring for our bodies is a way of honouring and loving God.

Yes, of course, we would quote I Tim 4:8, where the apostle says, “For physical training is for some value, but godliness has value for all things.” But to say that spiritual fitness is more important isn’t to say that physical fitness doesn’t matter at all, or that it has no impact on godliness and spiritual fitness. A healthy, fit body is the most appropriate home for a vibrant spirit.

Going to gym, swimming laps or doing Pilates won’t substitute for regular study, prayer and spiritual devotions, but taking off the shackles of laziness, overeating and the physical debilitation brought about by ignoring our physical fitness can set our souls on a course of pursuing God with a renewed vigour, earnestness and delight.

To be fully alive, fully human, fully the people God created us to be, we have to care for our bodies, discipline them, and make them our servants in our service to God.

For me, physical discipline is primarily about motivation. Most of us want to be healthier and know what to do to become so and to be better stewards of our bodies. But our motivation lags. Understanding my body as an instrument of service to God as well as how it affects my spirituality and emotionality can give me the motivation to take better care of it in the face of my cravings and laziness.

The two areas we have to battle with are excessive eating and laziness. In ancient times, these hurdles are called gluttony and sloth (two of the seven deadly sins!). The way to overcome these are to keep physically fit, to eat less and to eat healthily.

Staying in shape require a lot of work and even regular pain; but not being in shape requires its own pain and labours. If I’m going to hurt in this fallen world – and every one of us will – I’d rather hurt and be sore getting in shape that hurt and be sore because my body isn’t fit!

Keeping fit is really quite simple. It involves four primary tasks: (1) Eat well, (2) get adequate rest, relaxation and recreation, (3) exercise moderately, and (4) take care of yourself medically (including regular check-ups and tests and acting responsibly on the results).

My emphasis here is on exercise. I am neither a medical doctor (though my daughter is) nor a fitness expert, but asking around and reading, most experts agree that the goal in exercise includes three things: cardiovascular health, flexibility (conditioning) and muscle strength. As a Senior, my daughter advises me to focus on strengthening my bones (because of osteo-arthritis) through weight-bearing exercises, which is the reason why I attend “body-pump” classes two to three times a week.

For cardio, I do the RPM (cycling-spinning) classes once or twice a week. Every morning (and a couple of times in the afternoons) I walk my dog for an hour. I relish taking public transport, not only because it’s cheap (and cheaper for a Senior!) but because I get to exercise and hit my 10,000-steps-per-day target.

What are the benefits of such a routine? You’ll feel better, sleep better, be healthier, and have more energy – all of which are especially important as you grow older! You’ll be able to stay more active than you ever imagined. Psychologically, the endorphins that follow a hard workout are an excellent way to manage stress and feel better about life in general. If you have problem with your spine or knees, I recommend aqua-fit (exercises in the pool).

If you’re overweight, you owe it to yourself and your family, not only to exercise but to learn to eat in a healthier way. Being fat neither makes you feel good about yourself nor brings respect from others (in our culture anyway).

Here are a couple of suggestions (as a gentle reminder to myself also as I admit to not adhering to them as often as I should): Eat smaller portions, eat your veggies and fruits; avoid or stop eating at fast-food places, cut the carbo, curb the snacks (chips), beer and fried stuff.

Don’t wait until a major health issue or crisis forces you to change your eating habits. Decide to change them now. Don’t you feel better already?!

PS: I must add and confess that part of the reason (a lesser motivation) why I have been so regular at the gym is simply because I pay for it! (monthly fees of about $130); the other (better) part is because I have gotten into the routine or regime.